No theater in the world may be accomplishing so much through the efforts of so few. With a full-time staff that would barely fill a shift at a medium-size Starbucks, Druid Theatre Company, based in Galway, on the rugged west coast of Ireland, has evolved into a staging ground for Irish playwriting with global reach, an outcome that has conferred on it the unlikely status of world-class institution.
The theater’s international reputation began accelerating in the 1990s with its celebrated collaboration with the young Anglo-Irish dramatist Martin McDonagh, and the breakout success of its production of his seminal, warped tragicomedy, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.” After arriving on these shores, Druid’s production earned four 1998 Tony Awards, including one for its director, the company’s artistic leader, Garry Hynes. Druid followed up with more of McDonagh’s black comedies, and eventually made another major splash by turning to the Irish theatrical past, in a project it called “DruidSynge”: The company took on six works by the classic comic playwright John Millington Synge, and brought some of them in 2008 to the Kennedy Center, where Hynes had previously directed “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
And now, in yet another of its outsize statements, the troupe — so small and unorthodox it doesn’t even offer a traditional full season of productions — has assigned itself the task of letting American audiences in on one of Ireland’s best-kept theater secrets. That would be the career of 77-year-old Tom Murphy, regarded by many in the know as, along with Brian Friel, the country’s greatest living playwright.
He’s certainly the greatest living Irish playwright with virtually no profile in the United States, a condition that Hynes and the Kennedy Center hope to help rectify with “DruidMurphy,” which like “DruidSynge” ties together multiple works in an effort to consider the breadth of a dramatist’s impact. In Murphy’s case, Druid has chosen three full-length plays — “A Whistle in the Dark,” “Conversations on a Homecoming” and “Famine” — that are unified in touching on the nation’s enduring experience with emigration. The week of performances beginWednesday in the Eisenhower Theater with “Conversations on a Homecoming,” and culminates on Oct. 20 with a marathon presentation of all three plays.
Hynes, a co-founder of Druid way back in 1975, has a long history with Murphy, a native of Tuam (pronounced like something close to “Tomb”) in County Galway. He was a writer associated with Druid for a few years in the 1980s, and the two developed a close working relationship. That it has progressed to the point at which the company has become an ambassador for his canon is a matter of deep meaning to the playwright, who relishes this ambitious embrace of his dramas.
“It has meant almost more than words can say,” Murphy observes by phone from Dublin, where he lives. “To have my work revisited by this phenomenally successful company has been wonderful.”
The reception for “DruidMurphy,” which this summer started in Britain as part of the London 2012 Festival, and went on to New York’s Lincoln Center Festival, has been largely enthusiastic: “I emerged astonished both by Murphy’s historical awareness and Druid’s ensemble vigor,” wrote Michael Billington in London’s Guardian. This week, Washington audiences will have their turn immersing themselves in Murphy’s explorations of the less-forgiving aspects of the Irish character.
Hynes, seated at a table in a quiet corner of the popular New York theater district bistro Angus’, says the limits of Murphy’s renown may be attributable to a prevailing misconception about him, that his plays are too insularly Irish. She quotes the Dublin (and onetime New York) drama critic Fintan O’Toole as observing, “Murphy is writing an inner history of the Irish nation.” Those words of praise carry the inherent suggestion that he might be less accessible to outsiders.
“He’s a less-audience-friendly writer at times than, say, Brian Friel is,” Hynes explains, referring to Murphy’s better-known contemporary, the author of plays that have been produced on Broadway, such as “Dancing at Lughnasa” and “Faith Healer.” “There’s a sort of perception that American audiences won’t get it.”
Directing “DruidMurphy,” she’s on a mission here, to upend the conventional wisdom, with what she describes as a trio of plays that take theatergoers on “a kind of archaeological dig” of what has made the Irish Irish. Through “DruidMurphy” and its cast of 18 actors, the dramas are intended to be seen in reverse chronology, starting with the 1970s-set “Conversations on a Homecoming.” The play occurs in a pub in Galway, where a man who had left a decade before for New York has returned. “A Whistle in the Dark” takes place in the English Midlands in the early ’60s, and details the violent lives of a thuggish Irish family that has settled in Coventry. “Famine” goes back to the 1840s, the time of the Great Irish Famine, a cataclysm Hynes submits had been “buried” in the psyche of Ireland until Murphy excavated it in 1968, when the play first appeared.
Hynes had been contemplating a large-scale survey of Murphy’s work for several years. The choices were primarily Hynes’s, Murphy explains, but he was happy with her selections even if he did not want the grouping to portray him as a writer with any kind of overarching agenda.
“The point I have been trying to make,” he says, in the deliberate if languorous cadence for which he’s known, “is that I’m not a political tract writer or a sociological tract writer. I think primarily I write about human nature. And as applied to my work, I think human nature doesn’t change. People are inquisitive, they emigrate, they love, they hate, they’re b----y.”
His work has been compared to the likes of such varied artists as English dramatist Harold Pinter and director Sam Peckinpah, but Murphy cites the pillars of the American stage as influences. “I think I’m more of a traditionalist [like] Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller,” he says. His inspirations sometimes have sprung from behavior that’s struck him as emblematic of larger themes. “A Whistle in the Dark,” for example, was the imaginative product of absorbing the “macho culture” among young Irish men in Coventry, where two of his brothers had settled.
The toughs he encountered seemed an embodiment of how Ireland had been “decimated by emigration,” how dislocation had rendered them rootless. “They were free of the constraints of family, neighbors, church and so on,” he recalls. “They didn’t belong to England, and they didn’t belong at home.” The play had its premiere in 1961 in London because it had been rejected by Ireland’s best-known theater, the Abbey — which would later embrace his work, including a production this past summer of “The House.”
Murphy sounds pleased with the American exposure he’s getting, and expresses little worry over what audiences take from the work. If it feels right to him, he’s satisfied, a sensation he experienced in the rehearsal room with Hynes. He doesn’t seem to mind ruffling feathers, either. Even over long distance, one can hear the glee in his voice as he describes the reaction a patron once had to a harsh play of his, set in a church. “Brendan Behan was a gentleman compared to you!” this person declared. Recalls Murphy: “I was delighted.”
Wednesday through Saturday at the Kennedy Center. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.